A classic case of ‘Ivory tower’ syndrome

(Ian Andrews is a Relief Porter at Trinity Hall) 5 November 2009

We all know Fascism is a “Bad Thing”. There is clearly nothing intrinsically wrong with devoting last week’s “Comment” (BNP success: failure of democracy, or failure of the electorate?) to a critique of the British National Party and its policies; however, I found the article’s undertone extremely disturbing.

For some years now the University has been attempting to rid itself of the image of social and intellectual elitism that it projects to the outside world. Few would dispute that such an endeavour is a “Good Thing”. Far too many bright working class children are denied access to Cambridge due to accident of birth, bad schooling and low expectations.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, a large number of potential undergraduates are put off from studying here because of a widely held perception that the university fosters an institutional culture of class distinction. That this is not the case is irrelevant; it is the perception that is important.

Last week’s Comment piece was not helpful to those who might wish to present Cambridge as a more egalitarian establishment. It appears to have been written from some Ivory Tower, utterly remote from the realities of life outside “the bubble” of the fortunate students who occupy this place. Its dismissal of the million or so people who voted for the BNP as ‘deluded’ or ‘unimportant’ is both disrespectful and patronising.

Ignored by the major political parties, poorly housed, unwaged and with few prospects, these are not men and women who are destined to be “movers and shakers” – they will be no media punditry, no “Linklater’s” or “Deloitte” for them so they can be safely ignored and their concerns dismissed with insouciant arrogance.

If the University is ever to hope to become more representative of society in general it has to attract the children of those people your “Comment” saw fit to denigrate. They will not be starting their adult lives cosseted by the Student Loans, LEA Grants and College Bursaries so freely available to your writer – if they’re lucky they might end up with a “McJob”.

The option of easing into a lucrative and rewarding career is not available to them. Indeed, not only do they not have such opportunities, but neither do they have the help of former Cambridge Men and Women, eager to aid the latest recruits from their Alma Mater. People who vote for the BNP are not “wrong” any more than people who vote for the Green Party are “Right”.

I think that those who do vote BNP do so because of an increasing feeling of disenchantment with mainstream politics and from the certainty that their concerns will not be addressed nor will their conditions improve in any significant manner under the present political system.

Fifty years ago they might have voted Communist for the same reasons. To criticise their lack of mental acuity from the smug safety of a student magazine that none of them will read is tantamount to an act of moral cowardice. To grasp the nettle and walk a mile in their shoes – now that would take real courage. The University, with admirable alacrity and open-handedness concerns itself with the plight of the poor and disenfranchised all over the world.

Perhaps if just a small portion of that concern were shown to the poor and hopeless in this country, who form the core support for the BNP, then its abhorrent policies would sink back into the primordial soup that spawned them. Until then I fear that Fascism will grow in leaps and bounds.

I am assuming “Comment” does not necessarily reflect the views of CUSU. If, on the other hand, its tone represents that of the University in general in decrying any opinion other than its own, then I’m afraid the distance between Town and Gown is going to remain as large as it ever was.

Ian Andrews

(Ian Andrews is a Relief Porter at Trinity Hall)